Arctic Expedition Cruising
Through Canada’s Northwest Passage
Story and Images by John and Sandra Nowlan except where noted.
Nunavut (population 36,000) is a massive, sparsely populated territory of northeastern Canada, forming most of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. Its islands have expanses of tundra, craggy mountains, amazing wildlife and remote villages, accessible only by plane or boat. Nunavut, meaning “our land” is known for its indigenous Inuit people’s artwork, carvings and handmade clothing. It was established as a separate territory in 1999, with its capital, Iqaluit (population 7,800), on Baffin Island.
The vastness, beauty and mystery of the north were deciding factors for us and the other 160 passengers on the ice-strengthened Ocean Endeavour as it charted a course from the western Nunavut community of Kugluktuk (formerly Coppermine), through the fabled Northwest Passage and on to the west coast of Greenland.
Most guests, a mix of Canadians, Americans and Australians, were veteran cruisers with a taste for adventure. It’s not a cruise for everyone since the Arctic is remote, cold and often windy with unpredictable ice patterns that could disrupt a sailing schedule. But the pleasures far outweigh any discomforts and every one of our fellow passengers loved the chance to explore an area so few visitors get to see in their lifetime.
Built in 1981, the Ocean Endeavour has had extensive refits and now boasts a spa, swimming pool and hot tub, a mud room for changing boots and clothes, an extensive library and three lounges for lectures and entertainment. It carries twenty Zodiacs which are used for exploring and landing on the mostly barren but beautiful islands of Nunavut. The ship’s dining room is large and bright with a surprisingly good menu selection (including, on some nights, fresh Caribou, Arctic Char and Halibut). There are many room categories but all are comfortable with private shower or bath. Our room was generous in size, with two portholes.
Adventure Canada is well known for the quality of its naturalists and we were very impressed by the large staff of 38 Arctic specialists who gave lectures and guided us at the various stops. Acadia University biologist Mark Mallory (Canada Research Chair in Coastal Wetlands Ecosystems) is a specialist in the impressive variety of birds in the north and his wife, Carolyn Mallory, is the author of two books about Nunavut plants and insects. James Raffin, who spends his summers in the Arctic, is a specialist in the geography of the region. Memorial University of Newfoundland archaeologist Latonia Hartery has spent years researching the early, pre-Inuit residents of the Arctic.
Writer Ken McGoogan is author of Fatal Passage, telling the story of Sir John Franklin’s doomed search for the Northwest Passage in 1845 and the subsequent unsuccessful search for him and his 128 men, all of whom perished. Perhaps the most emotional stop on the whole cruise was at remote Beechey Island where Franklin was known to have wintered and where the graves of three of his men were found.
Every day we were on the lookout for wildlife and were rewarded on day three with about a dozen polar bear sightings. Sometimes we boarded Zodiacs twice a day for a water tour or landings on a beach. We explored centuries-old ruins of the pre-Inuit culture and visited abandoned Hudson’s Bay Company stores or former depots used by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police stationed there.
In Canada, the Inuit (translating as “the people”) live throughout most of Northern Canada in the territory of Nunavut, as well as in the northern third of Quebec, in Labrador, and in parts of the Northwest Territories, particularly around the Arctic Ocean. Under the Canadian Constitution, the Inuit are recognized as a distinct group of Aboriginal Canadians who stand as indigenous equals with the First Nations or the Métis.
The Greenland Inuit are descendants of indigenous migrations from Canada, today being citizens of an autonomous constituent country within the Kingdom of Denmark. This land mass has been inhabited off and on for at least the last 4,500 years by Arctic peoples though most ancestors began migrating from the Canadian mainland in the 13th century. Greenland (population 56,500, the majority of which are Inuit) is the largest island in the world.
Information courtesy of Wikipedia.
Two small Inuit communities, Gjoa Haven (named for the small boat Roald Amundsen used in 1906 to complete the Northwest Passage for the first time) and iceberg-lined Grise Fiord (the northernmost community in Canada) welcomed us with town tours and lively displays of drumming, dancing, throat singing and unique Arctic athletic competitions. It was wonderful to mingle with friendly and generous people who have adapted so well to the harsh climate of the north, particularly in winter when much of Nunavut doesn’t see the sun for months on end. In the villages we sampled fried bannock and muktuk – boiled narwhal skin with a layer of fat.
On the cruise with us, New Brunswick photographer Freeman Patterson declared that he prefers the Arctic to the Antarctic because of its rich variety of vegetation. “It’s visually exciting and emotional,” he said. “The rocks and tundra are filled with miniature gardens. They look to me like they were placed there by some very skilled Japanese gardener.”
Animal life is not as prevalent in the Arctic as in the Antarctic but in addition to polar bears we saw seals, muskoxen, Arctic hares, Arctic foxes plus bowhead whales and all-white beluga whales. In late summer there was still plenty of bird life, particular on the tall cliffs of Prince Leopold Island.
Although there were lots of icebergs on the Canadian portion of the cruise (we almost got stuck in Grise Fiord), the truly spectacular bergs were seen after we crossed to western Greenland. Karrat Fjord, dotted with icebergs from nearby glaciers and surrounded by spectacular mountains was at its best on the sunny, warm day we visited when it was 4 degrees C. One woman from California said this was the most beautiful sight she’d ever seen in her life. It was hard to disagree.
Even more spectacular were the icebergs farther south at the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Ilulissat Icefjord. The fastest moving (up to 40 metres a day) and most productive glacier in the Arctic, it calves huge icebergs into the fjord, many larger than apartment buildings or even city blocks. Many end up in the North Atlantic where they can pose a danger to shipping. Experts believe that the berg that sank the RMS Titanic in 1912 started its infamous journey here. On Zodiacs, we toured as close as we dared to these majestic towers of ice.
This was our first trip to the Arctic areas of Canada and Greenland. We can now see why it has such an emotional hold on every guest who visits the area. On our final night the Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights) put on a spectacular display of colorful formations that danced across the sky. It was a perfect ending to one of our best-ever cruise adventures.
Follow Up Facts Adventure Canada, www.adventurecanada.com, is a family-run travel company with thirty years’ experience in small-ship cruises to the world’s more remote coastlines. Its pioneering approach to expedition cruises and small-group experiences emphasizes wildlife, culture, learning, and fun. Adventure Canada first sailed the Northwest Passage in 2009, and by the end of the 2018 sailing season, will have sailed the Northwest Passage fifteen times! About 80% of guests are from Canada, with a remaining mix of Australians, Americans, British, Europeans and New Zealanders.
See the 17-day “Out of the Northwest Passage 2018” itinerary for complete information. Cabin prices start at US$9,295 pp, not including charter flights to Kugluktuk (Coppermine) and return from Greenland. The Northbound Charter Flight (Edmonton to Kugluktuk) is US$1,045 pp and the Southbound Charter Flight (Kangerlussuaq, Greenland to Toronto) is US$1,450 pp, both flights including all taxes and fees.
Nunavut Tourism information: www.nunavuttourism.com
For more feature articles in our publication’s Travel Article Library that highlight expedition cruising and polar regions, you will enjoy a visit to New Zealand’s and Australia’s Subantarctic Islands, Five Top Spots Around the World to do your Whale Watching, How to Choose an Adventure Tour, and a Quest to Understand and Appreciate the Mighty Walrus in its Circumpolar Environment.
John and Sandra Nowlan are veteran travel and food writers based in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Both have graduate degrees (Sandra a Master of Science and John an MBA) and started travel writing and photography after retirement. They have traveled to and written about all seven continents and about 120 countries. They particularly love expedition cruising to fascinating places (the Galapagos Islands, Up the Amazon, the Arctic and Antarctic). Visit their website: www.nowtravel.ca/index.html.